Sustainability is seen as a "logical value proposition" for the Nordic region

Sustainability is seen as a "logical value proposition" for the Nordic region

The Nordic apparel sector has long been seen as a bellweather for sustainability in fashion. And a recent event in New York City heard how the region's brands, retailers and designers are creating a new paradigm for making apparel that promotes the environment, rather than diminishes it.

The Danes have a word, "hygge," pronounced "hoo-guh," that the Oxford Dictionaries describe as "a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being." The Norwegians refer to this state of bliss as "koselig;'' the Finns, "kalsarikannit." In Sweden, everyone from Malmö to Kiruna bandies about the word "lagom," which means "not too little, not too much – just enough."

It's this Scandinavian concept of warmth, sanctuary and intimacy that the Nordic Fashion Association, a nine-year-old coalition that represents the clothing and textile sectors of all five Nordic countries, wishes to extend to the fashion industry and its efforts to become more sustainable.

Creating a new paradigm

Seeking collaborators across the Atlantic, delegates from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland recently gathered in New York City at an event organised by the Nordic Fashion Association to discuss how brands, retailers, and designers can create a new paradigm for making apparel that promotes the environment, rather than diminishes it.

"Capitalism will drive sustainability; within lies new business opportunities"

"We are small countries in the north of Europe, but our companies and brands are global players," says Gisle Mariani Mardal, chairman of Nordic Fashion Association, whose members include the Swedish Fashion Council, the Danish Fashion Institute, the Norwegian Fashion Institute, the Icelandic Fashion Council, and Finnish Textile & Fashion. "As we see an increasing desire for Scandinavian design, we need to make sure our companies can deliver products based on sustainable practices."

The conference, themed 'Powered By,' played on the strengths of each country: Norway, replete with natural riches, is "powered by nature;" while Iceland, land of Vikings, is "powered by heritage." Denmark, host of the annual Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the world's leading forum on sustainability in fashion, is, suitably enough, "powered by sustainability."

Meanwhile, Finland, whose scientists have pioneered advances in post-consumer fibre recycling, is "powered by innovation." And Sweden, home of tech giants such as Spotify, Skype and King Digital, the maker of the Candy Crush games, discussed how a country "powered by technology" can address the myriad environmental challenges so endemic to the fashion industry.

Despite these differences, the Nordic countries, as a whole, are uniquely poised to tackle the overarching theme of sustainability – one that Mardal describes as a "logical value proposition" for the region.

"The world sees the Nordic countries as responsible and deeply value-based societies," he says. "We're known for our secular democratic model, economic systems, quality in education, equality, closeness to nature, and clean and fresh environment. This is a responsibility we have to live up to."

Sustainable principles

The Nordic region has long been a bellwether for sustainability in fashion. In 2012, before ethical codes of conduct became table stakes for apparel companies, the Nordic Fashion Association leveraged its Nordic Initiative Clean and Ethical (NICE) platform to draft a series of principles for establishing an "industry-wide common ground for ethical and fair business."

Based on the United Nations Global Compact, which called on businesses to champion social responsibility, this concept of "niceness" included standing up for human rights, advocating transparency in the supply chain, and encouraging the development of environmentally friendly technologies.

Indeed, it's the last point that will drive sustainability in fashion, says Elin Frendberg, CEO of the Swedish Fashion Council and co-founder of the Digitizing Fashion platform. It's still early days yet, she admits, relating the state of fashion technology today to the brick-like mobile handsets of the 80s.  

"We can produce garments according to their demand and reduce slack in the supply chain"

"We're trying to move away from the very old-school, ugly-looking, chunky tech stuff happening now to a more fun, clean, fashion-tech scene that is more into emotional values, communication, and solutions to everyday problems," Frendberg says.

One of the tools the Swedish Fashion Council is currently working to refine – in collaboration with H&M, the Association of Swedish Fashion Brands, and Stockholm University – is Front Row Forensics, a system that couples live streaming with machine learning to rate the popularity of specific looks on the runway among consumers, buyers, and influencers.  

"By doing that we can produce garments according to their demand and reduce slack in the supply chain," she says.

Adopting a similar tack, Atacac, a label based in Stockholm, displays only virtual "avatars" of its designs on its online storefront. Garments are manufactured solely on an on-demand basis, which means there are no finished pieces gathering dust on a shelf waiting to be snapped up. Besides eschewing a traditional inventory, Atacac also employs dynamic pricing, similar to what airlines do. If demand for a specific item outstrips its availability, its price gets a boost.

Changing the status quo

As a board member of Mistra Future Fashion, a cross-disciplinary research programme led by the RISE Research Institutes of Sweden, that wants to "close the loop" on clothing production, Frendberg believes that systemic change is necessary.

"I think the most urgent thing is to change the system now," she says. "We need to make clothes in different ways in the future, so we have to think about the materials we use, how we mix them together, how we use chemicals in order not to get the 'dirty' stuff back in the new loops, and really creating a circular economy for fashion."

We might even move away from ownership entirely, Frendberg suggests. Referring to the so-called sharing economy; a mode of consumption that cultivates a more ephemeral relationship with material possessions, "we have to create functions not products," she says.

Leasing programmes are gaining traction in Sweden, where brands such as Filippa K and Uniforms for the Dedicated allow the option of either renting or buying. In Denmark, a "circular" subscription service called Vigga sends you baby clothing in the sizes you need, then takes back the ones you've outgrown.

In short, changing the status quo often mean shifting – or outright subverting – tired business models.

Still, the current climate presents an "opportunity to take the lead in sustainable development," Mardal says. "Capitalism will drive sustainability; within lies new business opportunities."

At the same time, the Nordic Fashion Association wants to wield sustainability as a channel for raising up Nordic design.

Brands like Lillunn in Norway, By Signe and Gudrun & Gudrun in Denmark, Vietto in Finland, and Farmers Market and Geysir in Iceland, give traditional Nordic elements for the 21st century while espousing timeworn techniques, local production, and natural fibres.

"This is the heritage we are proud of, and this is what we display," says Gunni Hilmarsson, an Icelandic designer who sits on the board of the Nordic Fashion Association.

Very hygge-koselig-kalsarikannit-lagom indeed.